G. Houston u.a. (Hrsg.): Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost. Race and Racism in Post-apartheid South Africa

Houston, Gregory; Kanyane, Modimowabarwa; Davids, Yul Derek
Africa-Europe Group for Interdisciplinary Studies
385 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

Almost 28 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa still is a deeply divided country that is characterised by high levels of economic inequality, continued race-based identities, and outbursts of xenophobic violence. Apartheid’s racial categories have proven long living and successful in undermining attempts to build social cohesion in what the late Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu once had hoped would become the “rainbow nation”. Despite the ruling African National Congress’ rhetoric and various socio-economic policy programmes, early on academics, such as the late Stellenbosch professor Sampie Terreblanche, 1 have warned that levels of economic inequality were increasing rather than decreasing. Others, such as Michael McDonald, have argued how black people were politically enfranchised after the end of apartheid in 1994, but not raised from poverty, and how racial solidarities continued to play a role.2 The exact relationship between race and inequality in the post-apartheid society, however, remains contested in academic debate.3 The editors of Paradise Lost. Race and Racism in Post-apartheid South Africa present an update of this discussion. “Race”, they argue, “remains one of the most salient lines of division, largely because of the country’s history of white minority rule. The increasing number of racist incidents in the past few years is indicative of the challenges the country still faces” (p. 1). The editors not only want to understand this salience, but in a transformative perspective also aim to explore how racism in South Africa can truly be overcome.

The three editors share a history at the Pretoria-based Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). The political scientist Gregory F. Houston is a chief research specialist in the Developmental, Ethical and Capable State (DCES) HSRC research division and a research fellow of the History Department of the University of the Free State. Among others he is author of The National Liberation Struggle in South Africa: A case study of the United Democratic Front, 1983–87 (1999), co-author of The Other Side of Freedom: Stories of hope and loss in the South African liberation struggle (2017), and co-editor of The Fabric of Dissent: Public Intellectuals in South Africa (2020). Public administration specialist Modimowabarwa Kanyane is a former HSRC research director and strategic lead and currently executive dean in the Faculty of Management, Commerce and Law, University of Venda. Among others, he co-edited Culture and Rural-Urban Revitalization in South Africa: Indigenous Knowledge, Policies and Planning (2021). And Yul Derek Davids is a research director at the HSRC. He previously worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) and conducted more than sixty national surveys on governance and elections in 14 African countries, including the Afrobarometer surveys. He co-edited South African Social Attitudes 2nd Report: Reflections on the Age of Hope (2010).

The rich edited collection comes in three parts. Part 1 addresses “White Privilege and the Racialised Power Structure in South Africa” with five chapters on racial privilege, the impasse of Black Economic Empowerment, intersectionality and the transformation of the workplace, racism in higher education, and the reproduction of racial inequalities through language of learning and teaching at South African universities. In Part 2 on “The Manifestation of Racism in Post-apartheid South Africa” four chapters are presented which highlight a quantitative analysis of self-reported racial discrimination, race and class perceptions of poverty, the boundaries of race in popular cricket, and an attitudinal analysis of anti-immigrant sentiments. In the last part on “Race and Identity in Post-apartheid South Africa” three chapters interrogate strategies of biracial people when encountering census-takers, university students’ perceptions of the quality of life, racialised heritage around the Paul Kruger statue in Pretoria. This is followed by reflections on apartheid, democracy, and (de)coloniality at the crossroads, and a discussion of approaches towards a non-racial society.

The contributing authors share several convictions, e.g., that “race” has no basis in biology and is socially constructed, but that many people nevertheless believe that racial groups do exist and a different in terms of observable properties. In South Africa race is a “lived experience” (p. 3). This becomes obvious when looking at just one sector of society: higher education – an area, where the government and other stakeholders over the years could have achieved far more in terms of dismantling apartheid cultural and institutional legacies. However, as historian Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi shows in his chapter on experienced racism in higher education, there is a powerful history of segregating education, which casted a very long shadow on post-apartheid South Africa. Among others, this is illustrated with reference to the appointment of Mahmood Mamdani, an Indian-born political scientist from Uganda, in 1996 as director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Cape Town over anthropologist and sociologist Archie Majefe, who in his lifetime was rejected for racial reasons at UCT twice, in 1968 and in 1993. Ironically, in his new position Mamdani confronted the inherent Eurocentrism in the knowledge practices of UCT and developed an Afrocentric curriculum (which was rejected by the university authorities and his colleagues) – years before the #RhodesMustFall movement made the decolonisation of the curriculum an issue again. But for years, and in particular at previously white universities considerable resistance to transformation was put up. More recent examples discussed in this excellent article include the debates around Stellenbosch vice-chancellor Russel Botman, the first non-white in this position, who – being subjected to merciless vilification by right-wing alumni – passed away at the age of 61 during at the beginning of his second term,4 as well as the resignation in 2021 of Eddy Maloka, the head of the African Peer Review Mechanism, from the UCT Convocation because of the appointment of a white retired professor over a black women for the post of deputy vice-chancellor in charge of transformation.

The defence of white privilege also dominated in the protracted culturalist debate on the medium of instruction at South African institutions of higher education, as discussed by Konosoang Sobane, Pinky Makoe and Chanel van der Merwe. Replacing Afrikaans by English (not to speak of any other of the 11 official languages of post-apartheid South Africa) and developing multilingual curricula remains a huge task. The effects of continued dominance of English are shown by the authors through a small quantitative study on the impact of language practices. Finally, in her chapter on student’s perceptions of life quality, Joleen Steyn Kotze, a chief research specialist at the HSRC, presents the results of a Big N survey among almost 1,850 respondents of the “born free” generation, i.e., those who were born after the end of apartheid and “the struggle”. The answers indicate that a broad majority of black student respondents are of the view that the quality of their life (as compared to their parents) has indeed improved. Yet at the same time, they also articulate “feelings of continued oppression and exclusion based on a sense of economic exclusion and racialised poverty and inequality” (p. 311).

To conclude, this well composed and reflective edited volume offers important insights into the economic, cultural, and institutional mechanisms that perpetrate the state of inequality and racism in South Africa. The editor’s conclusions are clear: they call for a consequent “decolonisation and de-racialisation of the educational system, land, labour markets and other critical spaces, among others, universities and sport fields” (p. 346). They are also making a strong case for a combination of structural changes, including land expropriation without compensation, and the promotion of common values through the African humanist philosophy of Ubuntu – a decolonisation of the land and the mind. Given the current political debates in the country and the pathetic state of most political parties, it will still take a long breath to seriously tackle this project of decoloniality.

1 Sampie Terreblanche, A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652–2002, Pietermaritzburg 2002.
2 Michael McDonald, Why Race Matters in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg 2006.
3 See Jeremy Seekings / Nicole Nattrass, Race, Class and Inequality in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg 2005.
4 Jonathan Jansen, Who killed Russel Botman?, in: The Times [Johannesburg], 11 July 2014.

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